Chernobyl: The 20-Year Anniversary

The nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine. (Photo: Webshots)

Twenty years have passed since the nuclear power plant explosion on April 26, 1986, in Chernobyl, Ukraine — then part of the Soviet Union. It is regarded as the worst accident in the history of nuclear power.

The explosion released 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.

Describing the horrific event and its immediate aftermath, Russia's Pravda (April 26) said: "The nuclear reactor was burning for ten days. The people who were trying to extinguish the fire were referred to as 'biorobots' because they were working in the places where machines turned out to be useless. Thirty of Chernobyl liquidators died on the spot, hundreds of others suffered from cancer afterwards. Almost 18,000 people, including children, died within the 20 years after the tragedy."

In another article Pravda (April 19) noted: "It was impossible to approach the reactor during the first days after the explosion; the temperature in the reactor reached 5,000 degrees. The invisible cloud which appeared above the Chernobyl power plant sent radiation across Europe, mainly to Belarus and Ukraine. Liquidators tried to drop sand and water on the reactor from helicopters, but it was impossible to neutralize 77 kilos of radiation in the air."

More details were provided by Scotland's Sunday Herald (April 9): "Planned as the largest such plant in the world, Chernobyl's fifth and sixth nuclear reactors were still being built when the fourth reactor exploded during an ill-fated test, in the early hours of the morning of April 26, 1986. Some of the 176 staff on duty that night were killed instantly; others would die later in hospital. In the immediate vicinity, dozens of fires were ignited. The reactor core burned for 10 days, and the resultant pollutants — including plutonium isotopes with a half-life of 24,360 years — drifted around the world, raining toxicity as far as the lakes of Japan and the glens of Scotland.

"The clean-up operation brought its own casualties. Some 20 firefighters died immediately, while hundreds more became seriously ill as a result of exposure to radioactivity. The reactor-core itself was eventually sealed off with a cement mixture, dropped from the air. There is no public record of the radiation doses received by the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and reservists charged with cleaning up the contaminated landscape of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus."

Pravda (April 19) offered some background on the plant's design: "A nuclear reactor is a huge trench filled with graphite. The floor, the walls and the roof of the reactor are made of lead, which is the only radiation-proof substance on Earth. Shanks of uranium fuel are inserted in special inlets in the graphite. The nuclear reaction produces an enormous amount of heat. The energy of a palm-sized piece of uranium is comparable to the energy of a whole cargo train loaded with coal. The heat comes to steam turbines that produce electric current. The turbines are located at a special location above the reactor. The whole construction is covered with a cap."

The true nature and scope of the disaster was not immediately known, as Germany's Deutsche Welle (April 26) explained: "The first reports that hinted at a meltdown from the Soviet nuclear power plant did not come from Moscow — they came from Sweden. On April 28, 1986, technicians at the Swedish Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant detected a radioactive cloud passing from East to West. They soon confirmed that the leak was not coming from their own reactors, but coming with air currents from the Black Sea. At 9 p.m. that evening, Moscow officially announced to the world that an 'accident' had taken place at the Chernobyl power station."

The Soviet leadership's response to the disaster was 'secretive,' according to Russia's Kommersant (April 26), noting that: "Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader at the time, addressed the issue on television only weeks later, on May 14, 1986."

Though two decades have passed since the accident, the danger it poses remains extant. Pravda (April 26) reported: "Chernobyl still remains a big problem for the environment of Ukraine and its neighboring countries nowadays, 20 years after the explosion of the nuclear reactor of the power plant. Radionuclids that were blocked at special underground facilities soon after the breakdown accumulated in the ground or penetrated into closed water reservoirs. Underground waters and the waters of the Plripyat River distribute about 90 percent of radionuclids beyond the zone of alienation."

Long-term Effects on Health Debated

On the long-term toll suffered by those who lived close to the reactor, Japan's Daily Yomiuiri (April 26) reported: "A colleague recently visited the accident-affected areas and, after interviewing a number of victims, said many people told him that, compared with before the accident, it has become more difficult for them to make a living. Some who had lost relatives to cancer looked on the brink of desperation. There seems to be no escape from the aftermath of the Chernobyl catastrophe in the foreseeable future.

"Those who have been compulsorily resettled from areas within a 30-kilometer radius of the nuclear plant and those living in areas still contaminated with radiation are said to be suffering from a great deal of mental stress, contributing to a wide range of illnesses."

Citing a 'culture of dependency' among the affected communities, Kommersant (April 26) posits that the harmful health effects have not been as bad as many believe: "All reputable scientific studies conducted so far have concluded that the impact of radiation has been less damaging than was feared. A few dozen emergency workers who battled the fire at the reactor succumbed to acute radiation sickness. Studies are still under way into elevated rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease among the 'liquidators' who worked at the reactor site in the months following the accident. And some 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer, attributed to radioactive iodine absorbed through consumption of milk in the weeks immediately following the accident, have been detected among those who were children at the time.

"There has been real suffering, particularly among the 330,000 people who were relocated after the accident. About that there is no doubt. But, for the five million people living in affected regions who are designated as Chernobyl 'victims,' radiation has had no discernable impact on physical health. Where a clear impact has been found is mental health. Fear of radiation, it seems, poses a far more potent health threat than does radiation itself. Symptoms of stress are rampant, and many residents of affected areas firmly believe themselves to be condemned by radiation to ill health and early death."

Germany's Spiegel Online (April 26) weighed in on the issue, noting: "Experts acknowledge that rates of thyroid cancer have skyrocketed since the Chernobyl disaster, particularly among people who were children at the time. Ukrainian studies have also recorded increases in leukemia and other cancers. Radiation contamination is internationally recognized as a cause of cancer, although it is sometimes difficult to prove a definite link between cancer deaths and the Chernobyl disaster, and experts are divided over the disaster's long-term effect on mortality. The U.N. World Health Organization estimates that about 9,300 people are likely to die of cancers caused by Chernobyl radiation. Greenpeace puts the potential death toll of the disaster about ten times higher."

Extensive testing would be necessary to evaluate the long-term effects, according to a reference in the Daily Yomiuri (April 26): "Nature, Britain's weekly journal of science, in its April 20 issue, pointed out that evaluation of the long-term health effects of low-level radiation exposure in the Chernobyl accident would be impossible without comprehensive epidemiological surveys covering several million people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia."

The First Responders Suffer

The struggles of those who were among the first responders to the disaster are detailed by Germany's Deutsche Welle (April 21): "Once the heroes of a nation, the first people to enter the Chernobyl power plant after Block 4 exploded 20 years ago are fighting for medical care after being forgotten since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The people who were there that night still recall with pride and nostalgia that they didn't panic, didn't run, and that when the time came, they behaved like real Soviet heroes.

"That night, no one fled," said Mykola Bondarenko, who was a 29-year-old engineer at the time. "We all knew the risks, but we all stayed."

"Five years after the accident, the prospects of receiving any more became dim with the breakup of the Soviet Union. In place of a single superpower with central planning, victims of the accident were now dependent for their care on three separate governments whose economies were in shambles — Belarus, Russia and Ukraine."

Nuclear Power "A Folly"?

There are those who feel that the disaster provided a reason not to build any more nuclear power plants. England's The Telegraph (April 24) carried a report on one such person: "One of the most experienced researchers into the Chernobyl disaster has broken his silence to warn European leaders that flirting with nuclear power 'is folly of the first order.' The views of Yuri Bandazhevsky have cost him his reputation as one of the former Soviet Union's most respected scientists and earned him a five-year stint as a prisoner of conscience in Belarus, where contradicting the government line is always a risk.

"Ever since, Mr. Bandazhevsky has dedicated his life to studying the effects of low-level radiation around Belarus's second city of Gomel in the heart of the area contaminated by the world's worst nuclear accident. After years of studying corpses in the mortuaries of Gomel and collecting what available statistics there were on still-births in the affected zones, he concluded that exposure to the radioactive element caesium-137 was causing far more deaths than was generally realized. Six months after being freed, Mr. Bandazhevsky is speaking out again now that he sees that nuclear power is once again becoming acceptable in western Europe. 'Not just because of Chernobyl but also because of nuclear testing around the world, the stratosphere holds huge amounts of caesium,' he said."

Reporting on the continuing effort to deal with the problem still posed by the nuclear reactor, Pravda (April 26) said: "The Ukrainian government approved the project of a new sarcophagus to cover the exploded reactor of the Chernobyl power plant in March of 2004. This facility will guarantee protection against a possible discharge of radioactive materials from the ruined reactor. The European company Novarka and U.S. consortium of CH2M Hill are currently competing for the project, promising to finish the construction in 2010."

The Sunday Herald (April 9) provided a graphic depiction of the disaster area: "Two decades after Chernobyl's reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986, the dead zone, a piece of land in modern-day Ukraine with a radius of around 18 miles, remains heavily irradiated and is regarded by widely as a post-apocalyptic no man's land. Beyond a red and white barrier, a straight road flanked first by silver birch trees, and later by a thick pine forest, stretches into the distance for as far as the eye can see. You could be anywhere in the former Soviet Union, except that the road is utterly devoid of traffic. There are no pedestrians. Untouched for the past 20 years, the area resembles a war zone: windows are smashed, roofs collapsed and there is not a human soul in sight."